It was Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario, who invited a young, little-known composer by the name of Igor Stravinsky to create three works for the Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Unlike The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine, was a success from its very first performance, in Paris, on June 25, 1910. It propelled the 28-year-old Stravinsky to fame and earned praise from the critics for its consummate blend of décor, choreography and music.
The story was culled from Russian fairy tales, combining the myth of the Firebird with the tale of Koscheï, an evil magician. It recounts the story of Prince Ivan, who while hunting in the forest, enters the realm of Koscheï the Immortal, who conceals his soul in a magic egg.
On his hunt, Ivan captures the Firebird, but chooses not to kill her. In return, the Firebird presents him with a feather with magical powers. When in trouble, Ivan can use it to call on the Firebird for help. The prince then encounters thirteen princesses who are held captive by Koscheï, and falls in love with one of them. Ivan challenges Koscheï, they quarrel, and the evil magician sends his guards in pursuit of Ivan, who in turn calls on the Firebird to come to his aid.
Bewitched by the Firebird, the guards indulge in an “Infernal Dance” after which they and Koscheï fall into a trance. The Firebird then leads Ivan to the magic egg that holds Koscheï’s soul. The prince destroys the egg, breaking the spell; the creatures are released, the thirteen princesses awaken and, of course, the prince marries his princess!